The books that last

Early one morning, around a week ago, I opened the front door to take a draught of clean morning air when I detected something in the breeze that awoke a cheer in the heart. There was in the wind an unmistakeable autumn quality – a new chill, the smell of damp earth – that had not been there even the morning before, and that meant two things. Firstly, and most obviously, it meant that autumn was here, and autumn has always been my favourite season. Second, it reminded me of an event that always happens at this time of year. There is in my memory a certain someone who famously waited for the autumn before setting off on a perilous quest: someone who felt, surely correctly, that summer was the time for relaxing and making the most of the comforts of home; autumn for journeying and adventure. That someone went by the name of Frodo Baggins. This year, as in so many of the years since I first attempted it, and despite the terrifying perils that await any who do, I decided once again to join Frodo on his quest.

I am talking, of course, about JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. It may seem odd that a (relatively) grown-up and (sometimes) serious person should spend so much time, year after year, reviewing yet again a tale concerned mostly with furry-footed creatures that first made their appearance in a children’s story. Of course, many people get obsessed with silly and trivial things and build a life around them – we have learnt to tolerate this or even admire it as part of “geek” culture. But a decision to reread Lord of the Rings regularly is not that, or not in all cases at any rate. It goes deeper.

In my life I have read many books that deeply moved and affected me in various ways, and I have not forgotten them. I am grateful for the lessons they taught and the pleasures they gave. But I never go back to them now. They were books of the moment, and the moment has passed. Enid Blyton enchanted my childhood. But there’s no going back now. Kurt Vonnegut and Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx fomented a rebellion. Revolutions can’t last for ever.

Other books are not books of the moment: they are for ever. They do not just satisfy passing needs and fancies but have depths unguessed of when one first reads them. They are like a deep well – you go to them and draw as much water as can satisfy the needs of the moment; you carry away with you according to your capacity. But when you go back, you’re surprised to find that more can be drawn – ever more, to satisfy the soul-thirst of a lifetime.

Again, that The Lord of the Rings is such a book may surprise some. Perhaps they tried it in the past or know it by reputation and just can’t get on with fairy tales or take seriously hobbits and elves and goblins. Perhaps they enjoyed it on the level of the story as a child, and never went back. Perhaps they have learned to despise the book, as have several miserabilist and materialist critics, finding that the book appears to their intellect as too simple-minded, too reactionary, a glamorisation of war or apology for class division or backward-looking, petit-bourgeois romanticism – even fascism.

The latter cannot have read the book at all, or not very closely – they certainly cannot have read in it deeply.

The Lord of the Rings is very much like the Bhagavad Gita. On the level of the material events of the story, it is indeed a tale of a war. On the intellectual level, it is full of aphorisms that provide much food for thought and stories providing entertainment and amusement. Whether these appeal to you in the manner presented may well be a matter of taste. But the real force, the real meaning, of the book is deeper and more spiritual. The Gita and The Lord of the Rings both are really about the inner war for the individual soul.

The Ring of the title is a magical object that gives its bearer and all who use it great worldly powers. (It’s something like a mind fixed on worldly goals then.) All who hear of it greatly desire this power – they want to get their hands on this magical and precious object, have it for their own, use it for their own ends – and, from the first, perhaps they genuinely desire such power that they may do good with it. But desire and the lust for power have their own logic, their own demands, and these all too easily overpower one’s more noble intentions. You seize the Ring intending only good; but only the smallest missteps lead one away from the path and into the dark forest, where the undergrowth of tangled wants will ensnare you for incarnations. The path to evil is paved with good intentions.

The corrupting influence of such desires on all the heroes of the book at every step in their quest and battles gives the lie to the notion that this is a simplistic and simple-minded tale of a battle between good people and evil ones. The evil are not inherently evil, not even Sauron, but are fallen angels – they started out just as we all do, as the heroes in the book do – as ordinary beings with contradictory desires and impulses. They choose the wrong path and go over to evil, ever more irrevocably as they progress down the wrong path. The good are not inherently so, and again and again must struggle with their own inclinations and lack of courage to do the right thing. Even as you progress in this righteous quest, your strength may fail you in the end – as it fails Frodo. In the battle over your soul, you turn again and again to the places where you might find comfort and strength – to your friends and comrades and loved ones, to your hearth and home, to guidance from the wise, but always in the end to the hero inside yourself, your own resources and courage and faith that choosing good will always in the end be its own reward, just as much as evil will in the end be its own punishment.

Such deep moral issues belong to no one age of man nor to any particular historic period. That is why books that deal with them seriously are not books of the moment, but of eternity. The road goes ever on and on – and as long as it does, a map and a guide will be helpful, particularly in dark and treacherous spots, in heavy weather, when you are lost or despair of ever reaching your goal. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that The Lord of the Rings is such a book. Keep it by your heart always.

What is “spirituality”?

What is “spirituality”? It’s the only thing that works, that’s what it is! But to convince you of the truth of such a startling claim will take a bit of work. So as Miranda’s friend would say, “bear with”.

Our “About” page declares that this is, amongst other things, a blog dedicated to spiritual matters. I imagine this would instantly put a great number of people off investigating any further, and with good reason. It whiffs of religion and nonsense. And who could blame those who strongly reject both? Religion is an ideology of inclusiveness that divides, a doctrine of love whose followers seem mostly committed to hate, a declaration of peace made to justify wars, the superstitious worship of a deity who seems to exist solely to justify current social iniquities and power structures. As for nonsense, our age is so awash with it that anyone who contributes a teaspoon of poison into an ocean already choked with plastic bags should be forgiven, but surely does not deserve the ear of grown-up people seeking a better world. And that’s true even if the nonsense is a “spiritual” sobbing over those very plastic bags. Naivety and what is generally known as “hippy bullshit” can surely be of no use to us. Or can it?

If this is what “spirituality” evokes, then perhaps we’d be better off finding a new term to express our meaning from the off. But in our experience, the search for neologisms is generally a futile one and we in any case address ourselves to grown-ups, and grown-ups should not get hung up over mere words. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Let’s have a closer look at the rose.

Pilate’s question

Spirituality is fundamentally about truth. That is why it has the whiff of religion and nonsense: religion, because the old word for the ultimate truth was God; nonsense, because our modern age is sceptical and cynical about everything, even about truth, or even the possibility of it. “What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus, and answer came there none. Our own age, rather than keep a wise silence on the question, as Jesus did, rather giggles or gawps.

However, ours is an age of contradiction as well as nonsense, and so at the very same time as we scoff or yawn at the notion of truth we find ourselves with a highly developed body of thought and well-regarded mode of practise, called science, which pursues truth nonetheless, and with historically unprecedented and impressive efficacy. Magic has nothing on science. If spirituality starts with truth, then in the modern age, that surely means with science.

But what is science? Our contention is that it is first and foremost an attitude of mind. Mastery of science cannot solely be a matter of acquiring knowledge and intellectual understanding, not least because what is to be known and the present state of knowledge are constantly changing – and at an ever greater pace. It’s impossible for any one individual to keep up. This is one reason why religious critics of scientific truth – used to the certainty of religious dogmas– don’t even know where to begin. You ask me to believe in science, they say, exasperated, and yet what science says keep changing, keeps contradicting itself!

This is where we begin – science, and spirituality, is not a matter of belief in any doctrine or dogma or method or theory or claim about the nature of reality. It is an attitude of mind: if we are unattached to beliefs, not already certain about what we think we know, if we are aware and observant, if we are humble and sceptical and critical and open-minded, if we are calm and not angry, not irritably reaching after facts to support our ideology in the face of mysteries, if we are willing to learn something new, then we can do science. Then we may get a glimpse of truth.

Buddha-mind

That is the scientific attitude. It was also the attitude of the Buddha. We bring the Buddha in simply because he was – to our mind, at least, at the present state of its knowledge –simply the most pragmatic and straightforward and least religious and most effective of the advocates of the spiritual path. Other teachers are available in the spiritual supermarket. But let’s stick with the Buddha for the purposes of our argument here.

Who was the Buddha and what did he say? First it’s necessary to insist that he was an ordinary human being, just like you and me. He was not God, nor did he claim to be inspired by or be the messenger of God. He was just a man. But he was also an eccentric. He was eccentric because he claimed, not just to have seen truth, but to have “realised” it –that is, to have made it real, absorbed it into his bones in order to live in accord with it, to have reached “enlightenment”.

What can he have meant? Buddha’s words can be puzzling in a modern context. His own context was that of Indian society, some 2,500 years ago. So we shouldn’t be surprised that we have to work in order to understand him. Buddha’s context was, however, in other ways, much like ours – a time of confusion, of war, of trade and the pursuit of riches and power, of seeking. Buddha was eccentric, but he was hardly the only one. When he left his palace and spurned his destiny as a prince to instead seek the truth as a renunciate, he easily found company – it must have been something like the Sixties. Many religious seekers were doing the same, and Buddha sought their guidance – he emulated, diligently and to extremes, their methods, adopted their views. But after many years of failure, he realised he was in some sense alone after all – that religion didn’t work, that he had sought but not found. So he took refuge in himself, adopting the scientific attitude of mind, and began again.

What he learnt and what he found by pursuing science rather than religion has come down to us in the form of the lectures he gave to his contemporaries. He, naturally, had to make use of the ideas and concepts and words to hand to convey his message, just as we do today, as is inevitable. Karma and rebirth and other notions were not invented by the Buddha – they were just the currency of the age, the concepts the world traded in when talking about the nature of reality. Today, we trade in different concepts. But the Buddha’s rose still smells as sweet. Rather than engage in a detailed exposition of Buddhist terms, something we are ill-qualified for, let us instead try to capture the heart of the Buddha’s teaching about the nature of reality, as we understand it, in modern, scientific terms.

Some truths to begin with

First, at the level of the cosmos, there is almost certainly no God, no creator, no judge or ruler, no one to rely on or turn to for help, other than ourselves. We live in a vast and breathtaking universe, one that seems to have some kind of harmony and logic to it, and yet a cosmos that was, to the best of our knowledge, simply born when conditions and causes were right, will change when causes and conditions change, and will come to pass as all things do – it will come to its end.

Second, that we human beings are not different from or separate from that universe. Its nature is our nature. We are star-stuff – literally. So there is no God in us either, no ruling, unchanging self, no soul, no judge or ruler, nothing that will last forever. When conditions and causes were right, human beings, complex arrangements of star-stuff, evolved on this planet – mud sat up and looked about. We as individuals, when causes and conditions were right, were born – we came out of this planet. And, when causes and conditions change, we will change – and we will pass. We will become manure for the roses, we will return to the stars.

Third, that there is suffering on this planet, and that suffering too is of the same nature as the universe and ourselves. When certain conditions and causes are present, suffering arises. And when those causes and conditions change, suffering can be transformed – suffering too can pass away. By adopting the scientific attitude of mind, we can look deeply into the causes of our own suffering, and that of our fellow creatures, and can take wise action to take care of it.

One of the biggest causes of suffering – and this will come as a surprise to us if we aren’t already following the spiritual path – is our own thinking. This is good news because we are in control of our own thinking. (Are we? Investigate and see.) If our thinking is in contradiction with the nature of reality, denies what is, then suffering is a sure result. So, the inability to see or to accept the first two truths is one of the big causes of the third truth. We want the nature of the universe and of ourselves to be something other than what it is. Mud loves what it sees and wants to hang around! We are deluded, and we live in fear and anxiety that we will lose what we have. But we will lose what we have – that is a certainty. Rather, we don’t even have it – it’s an illusion. It is just the nature of things. We fret about the inevitable.

Of course, Buddhism has, at least in the West, long had a (completely false) reputation for being gloomy. But what is gloomy about happy and peaceful coexistence with things as they are? What is there to hope for in a life that denies reality and tries to escape it in various ways – through false beliefs, through sensuality, through consumption, through running away, through building a Tower of Babel? Our wrong perceptions about the nature of reality, and our futile attempt to live in accord with the reality we want rather than the reality we have, make us suffer. Of course it must. But this is, really, insanity – especially in an age of science. The world is as it is – and it’s beautiful. We should appreciate it while we are here. We are it.

The path

Finally, then, we must consider, adopting once again that scientific attitude of mind, what it means to live in accordance with truth. How does one do that? Accepting truths about the nature of reality as an intellectual proposition is worthless if we then continue to go about our lives as if things were otherwise. It’s no good accepting the truth of impermanence if we live as if there were permanence. But how do we proceed? What do we do? That will have to be the subject of a future post. is the subject of very many fantastic books – a list of some of my favourites appears below. These are very useful, perhaps indispensible, signposts. But as in all science, it’s ultimately down to you. The more sensitive you are, the more aware you are to what’s going on within and around you, the more likely you are to have success in your experiments with truth.–Stuart

Further reading:

What the Buddha Taught

Awakening of the Heart

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Dharmapadda

Start Where You Are

The Power of Now

Freedom From The Known